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Last updated: Jun 23, 2022
7 min read

Is it bad to eat late at night?

 

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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

There isn’t an official “best time of day” to stop eating. When you should stop eating can depend on your appetite, lifestyle, physical activity, and schedule. However, you may wonder if it’s bad to eat late at night. Does eating late at night cause weight gain? Let’s explore.

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Is eating late at night bad for you?

If your primary concern is weight gain, eating more than your body needs can get in the way of your goals. So, if you notice you tend to eat more when you’re eating late at night, that may cause unwanted weight gain

However, there is no official consensus on whether or not eating late at night is bad, as its effects can vary from person to person, and many factors are involved, from your circadian rhythm to the timing between meals (Paoli, 2019).

Your circadian rhythm

Some researchers believe it’s best to eat according to your circadian rhythm. This 24-hour internal body clock dictates your sleep cycles, hormone production, metabolism, appetite, and more. 

Proponents of this theory believe it’s best to eat during the eight to 12 hours of daylight hours per day. This is when your body is designed to be active, so eating within this window may allow you to burn calories more efficiently than eating outside of it (Chaix, 2019; Adafer, 2020). 

Timing your meals

Even if weight gain is not your primary concern, some research suggests that eating late at night can have other detrimental health effects. However, this may have more to do with eating over a more extended period than eating at night.

For example, one study found that eating in a window of fewer than 12 hours per day is associated with a decreased risk of weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease (Melkani, 2017). 

Also, studies of men with prediabetes have found that those who ate earlier in the day, between 8 a.m.–2 p.m., experienced improvements in their appetite, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity, compared with those who ate over a more typical 12-hour period (Sutton, 2018). 

Similarly, those who ate between 8 a.m.–5 p.m. had lower fasting blood sugar levels than those who ate between 12 p.m.–9 p.m (Hutchinson, 2019). However, these studies were conducted in people with prediabetes and may not apply to others.

Other studies suggest intermittent fasting may be the better approach to meal timing. Intermittent fasting describes eating between a set window every day, usually between eight and 12 hours (Adafer, 2020). 

Some people who practice intermittent fasting may skip breakfast, while others skip dinner or have dinner earlier. In a study of individuals with excess body fat, reducing the eating window from 14 hours to 11 or less led to lower body weights and improved sleep and energy (Gill, 2015). 

One thing to note: if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have a history of eating disorders like anorexia or binge eating disorder, you should not engage in intermittent fasting without first speaking with your healthcare provider (Freire, 2020).

Effects of eating late at night

If you’re ravenous, you should eat something, regardless of the time of day. However, making a habit of late-night eating can lead to some unwanted results, like weight gain, an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, and acid reflux.

Weight gain

Because your body’s metabolism is designed to work during the day, it is possible (but not absolute) that eating late at night may contribute to weight gain (Adafer, 2020; Chaix, 2019). 

Many people don’t follow a strict eating schedule and eat randomly during the day, with more of their food consumption after 6 p.m. (Gill, 2015). People who skip meals during the day may also be more likely to feel hungry and eat more, which can lead to weight gain (Leidy, 2011). 

Finally, if your diet includes a lot of empty calories like processed carbohydrates or less filling foods, that can make you feel hungrier at night (Hetherington, 2013; Arguin, 2017). 

Metabolic syndrome 

Some research suggests that eating late at night or over a longer window may increase the risk of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome describes a combination of health conditions like obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure), and insulin resistance (Adafer, 2020; Chaix, 2019). 

Acid reflux

Acid reflux occurs when your stomach acid irritates the lining of your esophagus. It’s a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Eating a lot of food—or eating certain types of food like spicy foods—before you go to bed can increase your risk of experiencing acid reflux (Newberry, 2019). 

How to stop late-night cravings

We rarely crave vegetables when those late-night hunger pangs hit. We’re usually salivating for something high-fat and salty or decadent and sweet. And while all foods are fine in moderation, it’s understandable that you may want to curb these cravings.  Here are some things you can try to keep the cravings at bay:

  • Eat more nutritious foods. Empty calories are so-called because they contribute to weight gain without making you feel full. Try eating foods higher in protein and fiber instead. Studies have shown it increases feelings of fullness and may lead to more weight loss (Paoli, 2019; Arguin, 2017).
  • Drink tea. While not conclusive, some evidence suggests that non-caffeinated, herbal teas like green tea may reduce your appetite and trick your mind into feeling full (Stuby, 2019).
  • Chew gum. Similarly, chewing gum may suppress hunger and appetite, tricking your mind into feeling satiated and preventing the desire for late-night snacking (Park, 2016).
  • Don’t bring snacks home. It’s easier to indulge if you have snacks in the pantry, so it’s best not to stock them in the first place (Hunter, 2019).
  • Adopt an eating schedule. Eating within a regular daytime window can help reinforce your natural circadian rhythm, potentially leading to improved sleep and less weight gain (Melkani, 2017). It may also prevent the kind of mindless snacking that takes place later at night.
  • Limit your calorie intake at night. Intermittent fasting may help you limit your food intake overall, leading to some weight loss if that’s your goal. It may also help you enjoy more restful sleep (Adafer, 2020).
  • Brush your teeth when you’re done eating for the day. Once you’ve brushed your teeth, you may be less interested in eating those post-dinner snacks.

What to eat late at night

Sometimes, you’re just hungry and need a midnight snack. So, what food choices are best if your stomach is growling late at night?

You want to avoid “junk” foods high in salt and sugar, like soda, ice cream, and processed meats. Instead, opt for healthy snacks that are high protein, high fiber, and low fat. These can increase feelings of satiety. Good options include (Paoli, 2019; Arguin, 2017):

  • Cereal
  • Fruits like bananas, apples, and oranges
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Oatmeal
  • Tofu 
  • Vegetables
  • Yogurt and other dairy products

When eating late at night, portion-controlled snacks are the name of the game. Try a prepackaged pack of nuts to limit snacking or DIY by pouring a healthy portion into a bowl (​​Vargas-Alvarez, 2021).

The bottom line on late-night eating

Scientists aren’t in agreement on the best time of day to stop eating. It’s likely that, sometimes, you’ll end up eating late at night. And that’s perfectly okay. If you’re worried about late-night eating being an issue, try the tips above to adjust your eating habits. 

And, if you find that you’re always hungry and are unsure about what your daily calorie needs are, a registered dietitian may be able to help you come up with a meal plan unique to you and your needs. 

References

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  2. Arguin, H., Tremblay, A., Blundell, J. E., et al. (2017). Impact of a non-restrictive satiating diet on anthropometrics, satiety responsiveness and eating behaviour traits in obese men displaying a high or a low satiety phenotype. The British Journal of Nutrition, 118(9), 750–760. doi:10.1017/S0007114517002549. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29185929/
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